Part I -- What's War?
In the halls of Congress and confines of the Oval Office, the perception is that the U.S. is at war with an enemy called al-Qaeda. Is this actually the case or is the claim an exaggerated piece of propaganda that has conveniently captured the minds of leaders whose abuse of power has become institutionalized?
In modern history, "war" most often describes a condition of armed conflict between two or more states. War is also a condition that has a discernible beginning and a definite end. Your state officially declares war, you take territory, destroy the other state's army, its government raises a white flag, signs a cease fire or, preferably, a peace treaty, and that's that. Sometimes, a national government will want to hide the fact that the nation is at war and, as in the case of the United States in Korea (1950s) or in Vietnam (1960s), it does so through a blatant, but no less effective, bit of propaganda: in place of a declaration of war it goes about calling its violent behavior a "police action." In truth, however, these add up to wars waged against other states. So, at least from the point of view of custom and tradition, not just any category of hostilities can be a "war." For instance, feuds, vendettas, punitive actions, ethnic violence, tribal hostilities and the like, as bloody as they might be, are not traditionally thought of as wars.
Part II -- al-Qaeda and the War Against Terror
Unfortunately, the traditional definition of what constitutes a war is changing, and not for the better. Back in 2001 the United States was attacked by a shadowy organization called al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was not a nation nor a government nor a state of any sort. Perhaps it was a loose collection of several thousand like-minded people bound together by an ideologically similar worldview, as well as a stark sense of being wronged. I think it is accurate to say that al-Qaeda devotees saw themselves "at war" with the United States because, they believed that the U.S. had attacked the Muslim "umma," or community. Osama bin Ladin, the head of al-Qaeda, said as much in his public "declaration of jihad" released in 1996.
However, al-Qaeda's perspective was not binding on the American government and, in truth, it makes no sense at all for the United States to say it is at war with an entity that, from the Western point of view, was, and to some extent still is, little more than a bunch of saboteurs.
Perhaps the speech writers and government public relations officers back in 2001 understood this dilemma and so, instead of declaring that the U.S. was at war with al-Qaeda, they concocted the term, "war on terror." It was an interesting side-step, but it too made no sense. As has been said so many times before, terror is a tactic, and one that is used by many more groups than al-Qaeda. Governments too, even the U.S. government on too many occasions, use "state terror" against other peoples. Nonetheless, it was not long before U.S. officials and politicians were using the war on terror to justify all of its reactions to the 9/11 attacks.
Under the Bush administration this may have started out as propaganda. The president wanted war, but his targets were as yet conventional nation states. Bush was a cowboy, a "bring'em on" kind of guy, who was also prone to playing fast and loose with language and rules, to say nothing of truth. He did all of this to get at those on his "enemies list." Al-Qaeda and the "war on terror" then, were tied to those states that Bush wanted to invade. Afghanistan was an obvious one, but really, for the administration, was an unavoidable diversion from more important targets. Soon after the 9/11 attacks Bush demanded that the Taliban rulers in Kabul turn over Osama bin Laden (who was a "guest" in that country). When they equivocated and asked for evidence that bin Laden was involved in the crime, Bush did not even answer. He just pulled the trigger.
Iraq was harder to bring off. The administration had to contrive a connection between bin Ladin and the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Then they arranged to supply themselves with falacious intelligence about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If "operation Iraqi freedom" had gone as they expected, the next target was to be Iran.
None of this would have been possible if the 9/11 attacks had not put the entire country into a panic. It is moments like these when no one is thinking straight that one makes the mistakes which, in the future, one can't help but regret. So, with nation running scared, our Congress passed the Authorization for the use of Military Force, which allowed the president to use military force against countries and groups that supported the 9/11 attacks. That was the turning point. With the "war on terror" as a one-size-fits-all cover, the government could say we were "at war" with anyone allegedly tied to al-Qaeda and 9/11. Now, George W. Bush and his compatriots were unleashed.
Thanks to the Orwellian Patriot Act, another 2001 piece of legislative panic, the U.S. got suspension of habeas corpus, indefinite detention, searches and seizures without warrants, wiretaps without effective court oversight, and the FBI asserting the right to force your local librarian to tell them what books you borrow. All of which the American Civil Liberties Union correctly identifies as serious erosions to U.S. constitutional rights.
Part III -- Institutionalizing Abuse
There is something disturbingly common about all of this. The "war on terror" that seems constituted to never end and the Patriot Act with which no real patriot could ever rest easy, are at once products of and facilitators for abusive impulses that, historically, people in power are both loath to admit to and equally loath to surrender.
To wit: Barrack Obama's claim that he has "legal" justification (no one bothers claiming a moral justification) to kill anyone, including U.S. citizens, identified by some anonymous "informed high U.S. government official" as an al-Qaeda member posing an "imminent" danger to the United States." There are all kinds of problems with this claim. As Marjorie Cohn has pointed out, clear evidence of an "imminent" attack is, in practice, not required. Just some official's belief will do.